The Never-Ending War On Terror: Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself


‘We’ll fight Islam for 100 years, says ex-army head Peter Leahy.’

That was The Australian on August 9. Later editions inserted the word ‘radical’ before ‘Islam’, perhaps in recognition that taking on all 1.6 billion members of the Muslim faith might be a little excessive.

But there was no rescinding the happy prospect of a revived Forever War. Not coincidentally, Britain’s PM David Cameron was reading from the same script.

“We are in the middle of a generational struggle against a poisonous and extremist ideology,” he said, “which I believe we will be fighting for the rest of my political lifetime.”

Naturally, Tony Blair, the warmongers’ warmonger, agreed, urging more interventions in the Middle East.

“The threat of this radical Islam is not abating. It is growing. It is spreading across the world. It is destabilising communities and even nations.”

We’re seeing yet more evidence that what was once called the War on Terror will never actually end.

In 2013, Michael Sheehan, Obama’s assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, explained that the administration expected the WoT to run for at least another 10 to 20 years.

A few years earlier, Brigadier Genereal Mark O. Schissler, the Defense Department’s deputy director for the ‘war on terrorism’ also announced a generational conflict against Muslims prepared to fight for 50 or 100 years.

In 2002, James R. Woolsey, the former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, explained that World War IV had begun (with the Cold War constituting World War III).

Fascinatingly, the enemy in these projections keeps changing, even as the rhetoric remains the same.

The latest promises of generational conflict cite the threat posed by the Islamic State (ISIS), an organisation that’s only been an Official Enemy for some months. Indeed, until comparatively recently, ISIS seems to have been receiving support from Saudi Arabia, America’s Official Friend. The death of Osama bin Laden, ostensibly the goal of western operations since the invasion of Afghanistan, has made no difference whatsoever.

If we go right back to 2001, we can see why. On September 20, 2001, George W. Bush explained: “Our war on terror begins with Al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated…. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen….”

War until the defeat of every terrorist group? That’s a war for all eternity.

What does Peter Leahy want us to do, in the course of our war against terror?

He told the Australian:

“The [government]should advance a narrative that explains that radical Islamism and the terrorism it breeds at home and abroad will remain a significant threat for the long term, it will require considerable effort, the expenditure of blood and treasure and it will, of necessity, restrict our rights and liberties.”

Let’s look at those concerns one at a time.

The threat terrorism breeds at home?

Any honest discussion of that begins with the simple fact that no Australians have been killed by terrorists on Australian soil since the Hilton bombing in 1978. Indeed, in July 2010, University of NSW academic Chris Michaelson published a study that calculated the risk from terrorism in Australia at… well, almost zero, actually.

Now, we can’t predict the future, and it’s possible that terrorists might, at some point, kill someone in Australia. But, of course, all manner of things kill Australians in Australia. Last year, more than a hundred of us died in workplace injuries. Why not launch, say, a generational struggle for safety in the building industry? Why are hypothetical deaths by terrorism so much worse than real deaths that are actually happening now?

Even in the US, terrorism is scarcely a major problem. In the last few years, an average of 4.6 Americans per year died from domestic terrorist attacks. By way of comparison, more people have been killed by lightning strikes, dog attacks, bathtub falls, and by playing football.

As for the expenditure of blood and treasure, in 2011, Bernard Keane calculated that Australia had already spent $16.7 billion on the war on terror, a figure that, obviously, has expanded since then.

How much more does Leahy want to spend? According to one calculation, the US has devoted a staggering US$6 trillion in American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – the equivalent of a levy of US$75,000 per household.

Does anyone seriously think that ordinary Americans are better off as a result?

Another calculation shows that the US allocates “over $400 million on terrorism prevention per victim annually, as compared to cancer, for which we spend only $9,000 for prevention research per victim. The same general pattern holds true for other big killers like heart disease, strokes, and influenza.”

How does that make any sense whatsoever?

Leahy also says we must be prepared for the war to restrict our rights and liberties. Again, that’s already happened, with ASIO being granted an extraordinary range of powers, including the right to implement control orders and the right to detain you even if you’re not a suspect.

New proposals would give the security services even more latitude, including, most controversially, access to the metadata produced by your electronic communications.

The Snowden revelations exposed the ambitions of security agencies in this respect. An NSA agent can, it seems, use an interface called XKEYSCORE to access anything you’ve ever done on the internet simply by your email address. According to NSA documents, in a single month in early 2013, one NSA unit collected data on more than 3 billion telephone calls and emails that had passed through the US. In that same period, it monitored 97 billion emails and 124 billion phone calls from around the world.

And what has all this achieved?

The professional bedwetters in the security industry and their media enablers explain the absence of any deaths from terrorism in Australia by pointing to the plots already foiled by the authorities. But, in his study, Chris Michaelson pointed out that, while people had been convicted for terrorism, all the prosecutions were for ancillary offences under very broad anti-terror laws.

None of them were preparing an attack; none of them had selected a target.

It’s similar in the US. In March this year, the academic John Mueller compiled a report looking at all known cases of Islamic extremism that had occurred within, or have been targeted against, the US since September 11. He broke down the 52 cases as follows:

• 3 involved situations where no plot had yet been hatched, but authorities worried one might arise.
• 27 were “essentially created or facilitated in a major way by the authorities”. In other words, a would-be jihadist, often mentally ill, would be provided the coaxing and resources necessary to carry out an attack, and then arrested upon proving that they were willing participants.
• There are no known plots disrupted that involved weapons of mass destruction.
• All but two cases involved nothing more than a plan to set off conventional explosives.

Researcher Trevor Aaronson trawled the data on terror arrests, he and came to a similar conclusion: only a tiny percentage of those convicted were what most of us would consider ‘real’ terrorists.

T]he majority of the foiled attacks that they cite are really only foiled attacks because the FBI made the attack possible, and most of the people who are caught in these so-called foiled attacks are caught through sting operations that use either an undercover FBI agent or informant posing as some sort of Al-Qaeda operative.

In all of these cases, the defendants, or the would-be terrorists, are people who at best have a vague idea that they want to commit some sort of violent act or some sort of act of terrorism but have no means on their own. They don’t have weapons. They don’t have connections with any international terrorist groups.

In many cases they’re mentally ill or they’re economically desperate. An undercover informant or agent posing as an Al-Qaeda operative gives them everything they need… gives them the transportation, gives them the money if they need it, and then gives them the bomb and even the idea for the terrorist attack. And then when that person pushes a button to detonate the bomb that they believe will explode—a bomb that was provided to them in whole by the FBI—agents rush in, arrest them and charge them with conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and then parade that person out to the public saying, “Look at us. We caught a terrorist. This is us keeping you safe.”

It’s not hard to understand such behavior. The billions of dollars spent so far on the war on terror have created an enormous caste of people with a material interest in talking up the threat so as to keep the resources flowing. For instance, last month, the Daily Telegraph published an article entitled ‘The high risk of terror is hitting home’. The piece explained that a Bali-style terrorist attack was “inevitable” on Australian soil.

Scary stuff, to be sure! But who was the source of this information? It came from Labor’s Anthony Byrne, who was channeling what the paper quaintly called the “intelligence community” – a community that had informed Byrne that, unless ASIO received all the new powers and funding it demanded, “an attack on home soil of the magnitude of the 2002 Bali bombing – which claimed the lives of 202 people including 88 Australians – was not only possible but now probable.”

Evidence? Why, there’s none! It’s all secret, handily enough.

But you can see the process by which the national security infrastructure builds itself, with almost zero accountability. Last year, the Washington Post reported that, in the US, there had been almost no research performed as to whether counter terrorism programs actually worked – despite the government allocating $17.2 billion each year fighting terrorism through the intelligence agencies, and another $47.4 billion to the Department of Homeland Security.

As Glenn Greenwald puts it, “If you were a US leader, or an official of the National Security State, or a beneficiary of the private military and surveillance industries, why would you possibly want the war on terror to end? That would be the worst thing that could happen. It's that war that generates limitless power, impenetrable secrecy, an unquestioning citizenry, and massive profit.”

But Greenwald makes another point that’s particularly relevant given the new focus on ISIS. The war on terror continues, he says, because it’s self-generating.

There's a good reason US officials are assuming the ‘War on Terror’ will persist indefinitely: namely, their actions ensure that this occurs. The US – through the very policies of aggression and militarism justified in the name of terrorism – is creating the very "terrorists" those polices are supposedly designed to combat. It's a pure and perfect system of self-perpetuation.

We’re now urged to buckle in for more decades of war because of the threat from terrorism from the Islamic State in Iraq. Yet, of course, the mayhem in that country stems directly from an invasion put together to… end the threat of terrorism. Back in 2006, Donald Rumsfeld, an early advocate of the Long War cause, explained what Iraq would be like in 2016.

What we'll see is a country that has water, that has oil, that has intelligent people, that has history. And it will be a country that will not be attacking its neighbors. It will not be filling mass graves with hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people. It won't be using chemicals on its own people. It will be a country that will be at peace and opposing violent extremists. And I think that that would be a fabulous thing for the world.

Yeah, not so much.

Both the former head of the AFP Mick Keelty and the former Defence Chief Peter Cosgrove have acknowledged that the invasion of Iraq increased the likelihood of terrorism in Australia. And yet it’s the threat of terrorism in Australia that drives fresh calls for strikes on Iraq.

“War is a racket,” warned the US General Smedley D. Butler in 1935. The war on terror is the best racket of them all.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.